A Bone and a Hank of Hair
He was surprised, on his return, to have a ’phone message from Mullard asking whether it would be possible for Carolus to call and see him tomorrow.
“We’ve got your man,” said Mullard when Carolus was in his office next morning; “but our people down there are a bit worried. He claims to know nothing whatever about it. I thought, as you know him by sight, you might come down to Pentragon with me.”
“Yes, I will; providing you come in my car. I can make it in six hours, or seven at the most, if we get held up at all.”
Mullard accepted this and they set off. They said little of the case on the way, Mullard because he felt he had already gone further than professional reserve allowed; Carolus because there was nothing more he wanted to know from Mullard. When they reached Pentragon, Carolus suggested a drink at the Porthaziel Hotel before getting down to business. The landlord was delighted to see him.
“You back already?” he said affably as he served their drinks. “You must like it. I’m damned if I do! I can’t wait to get back to the Smoke. They never stop, you know, midday and night.”
“The landlord is not an enthusiastic about the arts,” explained Carolus to Mullard.
“I don’t know about arts,” said the landlord. This lot give me the ——s. Listen to ’em.
Carolus and Mullard did. ‘Nothing as vieux jeu as Eliot’, they heard, ‘quasi-surréalism’, ‘conceptual images’, ‘Derain’, ‘Harold Pinter’, ‘Brecht’, ‘flaccid as Lawrence’, and one shrill pained cri de cœur—‘You might as well say E. M. Forster!’
“It is rather overwhelming,” agreed Carolus. “How did that chap get on? The one you were telling me about?”
“Which one was that?”
“The man who is going to take a room in your hotel and instead met the owner of Penzanvoze Cottage.”
“Oh, that one. It was a funny thing about him. It seems he didn’t take that cottage after all. Couldn’t agree on terms, I dare say. Osbert Auden his name was.”
“Yes, that’s the man.”
“No. He didn’t take the cottage. Just as well perhaps, because the police have just nicked the owner of it.”
“Really? What’s his name?”
“God knows. All their names are alike to me. Christopher and Peter and Stephen and Francis.” He turned to a beard nearby. “What’s the name of that bloke who had Penzanvoze Cottage? Just been nicked? Oscar Gordon. That’s it. Oscar Gordon his name is.”
“What was he arrested for?” asked Carolus, conscious of Mullard fuming beside him.
“No one seems to know. Usual thing I suppose, with these bees. It seems the London police wanted him. Anyhow, he’s inside now. Took him in yesterday afternoon, I heard.”
“What about the other one?”
“The one who was going to take the cottage? He’s gone.”
“Does anyone know where?”
“No. Just went. He was in here last night and heard this Oscar Gordon was nicked. Not been seen since.”
“Come on,” said Mullard to Carolus.
They went round to the police station, where a worried Inspector awaited them.
“He’s roaring to beat the band,” the Inspector told Mullard. “Screaming blue murder for solicitors. Shouting about wrongful arrest. Every time I go near he yells habeas corpus at me. I don’t know what to do with him.”
“I’m not surprised. You have got the wrong man.”
“You said one of these artistic crackpots at Penzanvoze Cottage.”
“I said Osbert Auden.”
“This one’s Oscar Gordon. It sounded like that on the ’phone. He lives at Penzanvoze Cottage. And he’s artistic, all right. Beard, jeans, the lot.”
“I might have known,” said Mullard, “I should never have listened to an amateur. I should have come down here myself. Can’t leave anything to anyone else. Now you’re in for a nice case of wrongful arrest, Inspector. There’ll be Members of Parliament popping up all over the House about this.
“I arrested the man living at Penzanvoze Cottage, just as you said,” returned the Inspector sulkily.
“But the name!” said Mullard, clinging to his strong point.
“They’ve all got names like that. There’s an Osric Borden in the village. I might just as easily have thought you meant him.”
“I meant the man I named and know one else. You’d better bring him in and let’s see whether we can get over it.”
“He’s nasty, I don’t mind telling you. You won’t talk him round easily. Talks about Craig, Marwood and Podola. Screams about the Gestapo. Says this is a Police State!”
Mr. Oscar Gordon was a small fiery man with an auburn beard and very heavy thick-lensed spectacles. He remained silent just long enough for Mullard to say he was from Scotland Yard and that there had been a grave and regrettable mistake; then, screwing up his face and releasing a deluge of saliva, he said, “Mistake? Mistake ? You dare to talk to me about a mistake? Perhaps the Home Secretary will be able to explain this mistake! Perhaps he’ll say that he acted on the best advice this time! I’ve been kept in a cell by your mistake and, by God, you’re going to pay for it! I shall see my member of Parliament. I shall write to The Times. I shall telephone the Chief Constable. I shall report this to every section of the press. I shall sue you in every Court in the country. I might have remained in that cell for years before you discovered your mistake. Look what happened to Oscar Slater through a mistake like that! Look what happened to Evans! It’s infamous. You stand there calmly talking about a mistake!
“By a most unfortunate chance, your name resembled that used by the man we wanted, Mr. Gordon.”
“So I must change my name, must I, to avoid being dragged to prison? My name, sir, is known to art lovers throughout the kingdom. Do you know I hold the silver medal of the Bodmin Etching Society? I have been hung in three Exhibitions by the New Penzance group? How dare you talk about my name? Before many hours are past, you will realize the enormity of this deliberate attack on the rights of a citizen! Don’t speak to me again! Don’t attempt to excuse yourself! If there’s any justice left in the land, I’ll break every one of you!”
He was gone, leaving behind him ‘the icy silence of the tomb’.
“Meanwhile,” said Mullard presently, “where do you suppose we’re going to find the man we want? Heaven knows he has had warning enough. I would point out to you, Inspector, that he is wanted on a charge of murder.”
“I know that, Inspector,” replied the local man tightly.
“You don’t suppose he is waiting here for us to arrest him, do you?”
“I’ll send a man to the railway station and check on the bus services.”
“It’s all you can do now. But please don’t arrest the station-master or any of the bus-conductors.”
“No need for sarcasm, Inspector. We carried out your instructions to the best of our ability.”
When Mullard was alone with Carolus, he asked whether Carolus thought Rathbone would adopt another disguise.
“Quite likely. But his wardrobe must be giving out.”
“You think, then, he’ll return to ‘Colonel Hood’?”
“Something like that.”
“It may take weeks to find him now. He’s got plenty of money in one-pound notes. Have you no suggestions?”
“Yes. A very cogent one. I suggest you put a twenty-four-hours-a-day watch on number 17, Marie Louise Avenue, Bayswater.”
“Now, Mr. Deene, this is no time for mystery and tricks. You can’t make fools of the police, you know. I have been very patient with you and listened to a great deal of amateur theorizing; but don’t go too far. Who lives at this address?”
“A woman called Cara Myberg.”
“What’s she to do with it.”
“She was a friend of another woman who called herself Lucille French and who died. I think I told you about Lucille French.”
“Yes. Does Mrs. Myberg know Rathbone?”
“She says not.”
“But you think?”
“I think you should have her very carefully watched.”
“It’s all very well, Mister Deene. I went on your information before and you see what has come of it.”
“I told you that Rathbone was masquerading as a writer or artist at Pentragon under the name of Osbert Auden. I was right.”
“But you also told me he had taken Penzanvoze Cottage, which was incorrect.”
“Yes, I admit that. My information was through the landlord of the Porthaziel Hotel. He was positive, but I should have warned you that that piece of information was second-hand. You heard the landlord explain that the man had decided against it at the last moment.”
“The consequences are very unpleasant. As you know, the police are not generally popular just now.”
“You put it very mildly. But, forgetting that, I can tell you that my information about Mrs. Myberg is first-hand. I interviewed her yesterday.”
“I see. You think Rathbone will contact her?”
“Once again, you don’t want to know what I think. As you had just crisply pointed out, I thought Rathbone had taken Penzanvoze Cottage and misled you over it. But, if I may suggest it, I would not leave that woman for a moment without a watch over the place.”
Mullard was still inclined to grumble. “You laymen talk as though we had unlimited manpower resources. It will mean taking men from important duties.”
“All right,” said Carolus. “It’s not my affair. Street betting, prostitution, public decency, illicit parking, drinking hours are doubtless of more importance. I can only throw out my little suggestion.”
Mullard look at him resentfully as though to imply a regret, a very bitter regret, that he had ever been brought into contact with Carolus. When they had returned to the hotel, however, Mullard disappeared for a long time into the telephone booth in the hall while Carolus went to the bar. Here he found Mr. Oscar Gordon, a very waterspout of saliva and the centre of a sympathetic group. Picasso, Sartre, even Dame Edith Sitwell, were forgotten as the small man said his piece.
“At last,” he spat, “they called it a mistake. A mistake ! Heads shall fall over this! There must be a fate in the name Oscar. It is the third of three infamously unjust imprisonments—Oscar Slater, Oscar Wilde and Oscar Gordon.”
An irreverent voice came from a young man across the room: “Come off it, Gordon. You were only inside a few hours.”
Oscar Gordon turned to the speaker, then said with chilly venom: “That is what I might expect from a man who does woodcuts, but we shall see!”
Carolus and Mullard decided to stay at the Porthaziel Hotel that night and leave very early in the morning. During the evening the local police inspector came in to give Mullard the results of his inquiries at the railway station and bus stop. These were simply stated. Both the booking clerk and a porter had noticed a man dressed in corduroys and a beret and carrying a suitcase who had boarded the London train yesterday evening. The porter, who was a customer at the Porthaziel Hotel, in fact remembered the man’s arrival and knew that he had intended to take Penzanvoze Cottage. But this information was not very useful to Mullard, since the train stopped several times on the way up. The fact that Rathbone had bought a ticket to London might not mean anything at all. He was astute enough to realize that Gordon had been arrested in mistake for him, and therefore that his flight and disguise were known. He might have gone to London as providing him with the best chance of remaining undiscovered, or he might have chosen one of the southern towns through which they passed. Carolus had never been to Reading, for instance, but imagined it a city in which one could live unobserved for years.
Carolus turned in early, much to the regret of the landlord, who found his company refreshing.
The drive back to London was even less chatty than the drive down. Carolus realized, not without amusement, that Mullard had plenty to think about. He himself felt a blissful unconcern since the actual catching of criminals was a police task, not his. They had all the resources and would not hesitate to use them. The hunt was up, and Carolus, who had never been an enthusiast for bloodsports, would take no part in it; but he could not help speculating on Rathbone’s next impersonation. As he had pointed out to Mullard, Rathbone’s wardrobe could not be unlimited, so it was reasonable to suppose that he would make some adaptation of a disguise already used, and the most probable was Colonel Hood’s neat dark suit. A clerical collar, perhaps? If it occurred to him he would scarcely be able to resist it.
Carolus dropped Mullard in Whitehall and drove back to Newminster. There would, he believed, be a pause of some days before any further developments were likely, and frankly he was glad of it. He wanted a rest. It had been an unsavoury case at the best of times. He had taken it up without the enthusiasm he usually felt when an opportunity for investigation opened before him. At the time he had put this down to the fact that there was no clear case of murder and he had always said that he would never investigate anything else. But, as its grim indications became apparent, he felt more than that.
As usual, it had brought him into contact with good and likeable people, as well as a good many less agreeable. He thought of Mrs. Luggett and Mr. Toffins, of Mr. and Mrs. Humbell and sensible Mrs. Richards. But he felt sick of the stale and morbid, the nasty little flat in which Cara Myberg lived, the pretentious Lascelles Private Hotel, the important Mr. Villiers and all the neo-whatever-they-were of Pentragon Bay. He wanted his own home and a few days in which to forget Glose Cottage and the limp lace at Miss Ramble’s skinny neck.
He garaged his car with some relief, for five hundred miles in two days was a lot of motoring on English roads. And this time, to his great relief, Mrs. Stick welcomed him with the prim movement of lips which she meant for a smile. In a few minutes Carolus was deep in his arm-chair with a whisky-and-soda beside him and a cigar from which he blew slow, luxurious puffs. Mrs. Stick brought in the evening paper, and it was without rancour that she said: “There. A cigar before dinner. You’ll never enjoy the ‘pullet a la cream’ I’ve got for you. I was only saying to Stick, cigars are for after dinner. But there you are.”
“No telephone calls, Mrs. Stick?”
“No. Was you expecting one?”
“Not really. Those are wonderful hyacinths you’ve got.”
“Well, you want a bit of colour sometimes, don’t you?”
Carolus had dinner and picked up a novel which his cousin Fay had sent him as a Christmas present. The hours passed to ten o’clock and, blissfully relaxed, he was about to go to bed when the front door-bell was rung. He called to Mrs. Stick that he would open it, and did so to find Mullard there. He could see at once that something was gravely amiss. Mullard spoke with a harsh, almost contemptuous hostility. “I’m afraid,” he said, “it was too late to put a watch on 17, Marie Louise Avenue.”
“Oh? Cara Myberg had gone?”
“No,” replied Mullard icily. “Cara Myberg is dead.”
The two men found themselves in chairs, Mullard still wearing his overcoat. There was a long silence.
“Poisoned, I take it?” said Carolus.
“Any chance of suicide?”
“I suppose so. In any other circumstances, suicide would be considered probable. But in view of her connection with the case . . .”
“Quite. Any reason to think Rathbone had been to the house?”
“Impossible to say. She had frequent callers. Her husband was away. But the woman downstairs tells me that the day before yesterday, in the evening, a man was ringing the Mybergs’ bell for some time without result. She herself, knowing that Mrs. Myberg was upstairs, let him in. A very respectable-looking, middle-aged man, she says, in dark clothes. The house is divided up, as you must have seen, but there are no front doors to each floor. She heard this man knock, then open and shut a door. A few minutes later she described him as ‘bolting out of the house’.”
“She could give no accurate description of the man, of course?”
“The usual thing. It could have been Rathbone, but it could have been almost anyone of his age.”
“It must have happened a few hours after I left her.”
“Yes, Mr. Deene. It seems to me you’re rather more heavily involved in this thing than you imagine. I don’t know why you took it upon yourself to go and see this woman. If you thought she had any information, it was your duty to inform us. As it is, you may be the last person to have seen her alive.”
“Or the last but one,” said Carolus reflectively.